Saints legend pays glowing tribute to former coach

St Helens legend Phil Veivers has given a glowing tribute to former coach Mike McClennan – who passed away last month.

McClennan, who coached the Saints from 1990-93, suffered from dementia and went missing from his care home in Orewa on October 16 before his body was discovered six days later.

Veivers, who played for St Helens from 1984-96, called McClennan a father figure during an extensive interview with the St Helens Star’s Mike Critchley.

He said: “Mike was a complex character and he definitely ate, drank and slept rugby league that is for sure. It was never off his mind for a second.

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“But he was a fair coach with us – he told us what he wanted each time and if we went out and did it, he would pat us on the back. But if we didn’t he’d tell us exactly what he thought. He was way ahead of his time as a coach.”

At the time of McClennan’s arrival, Wigan were the dominant force in rugby league, ut Veivers believed the Kiwi changed the dynamic of the club that saw them become a thorn in the side of their fierce rivals.

He added: “It was off the back of Alex Murphy being there for five years. Alex had done what Alex could do and it had got to the stage where the club needed structure.

“We were renowned for playing off-the-cuff football but we needed a little bit of structure to go with that as well.

“That is something that was not implemented until Mike arrived. We then got a bit more complexity in what we did then, especially in defence.

“Wigan were a juggernaut at the time – they were the full-time outfit in the competition.

“It did not matter which club was chasing a quality player, if Wigan were in for him then Maurice Lindsay would go out and raise a few more funds to sign them which made them even bigger.

“It was a tough time for Mike to come in up against such a formidable opponent, but to be fair, he had a good go at it.

“We started gelling together and then playing as a team – and that is what he was trying to do – team came first.

“He was off the wall with some of his ideas on how he would break down the opposition’s defence – none more so than Big John Harrison’s head the ball over the line.

“I can remember that plain as day – and him walking up to the referee and asking: ‘Can we do this?’

“His other little one was the player turning their backs in the wall and chip kicking back over his head and one where he split the scrum and the loose forward would peel off.  He was always thinking of ways to break down the opposition – and it worked.

“Everything prior to that was very English and set in stone – but he did not take the offload game out of the Saints play and we did not become five drives and a kick. He carried on with that flair that we had.

“Mike kept a tight unit; we ate together, had a beer together and hung around each other a lot. You get a bit frustrated and bored with the environment you are in.

“Prior to Mike coming in that is where we were at, I was contemplating leaving, things just weren’t right.

“Mike came in like a big father figure and give us a sort of collective big cuddle that said we are family and we look out for each other.

“We worked hard for each other and that is where the camaraderie came from – that is what he brought to the field.”

“And he remembered us, too, and I bumped into Mike four or five times after he had left the club and had a great hour with him taking coaching and rugby. I valued his opinion because it was high calibre information that the guy could give.

“As I said at the start – he was ahead of his time when he was coaching.